In Dark Waters, Mark Ruffalo is at his most disgruntled-professorial as Robert Bilott, a lawyer who devotes his life to pursuing DuPont for knowingly poisoning the water supply in a small town in West Virginia. Dark Waters is basically unsexy Erin Brockovich, which is to say it’s a similar story—big chemical company knowingly makes people sick; dogged legal eagle works tirelessly to bring them down—but that the protagonist is purposefully uncharming. Bilott is determined and principled, and the focus of Dark Waters is not his personality, but his quest to hold DuPont accountable for poisoning the water in West Virginia. Dark Waters is not so much a biopic, as Erin Brockovich is, but a legal thriller, a procedural not unlike All the President’s Men, that follows the case step by infuriating step.
But Dark Waters, while focused on the case central to its story, is also aware of being a certain kind of movie made at a particular time. Not too long ago, we would not blink at an actress like Anne Hathaway—an Oscar winning, A-list star—playing The Wife in a movie like this. But now The Wife roles feel especially thankless (see also: Claire Foy in First Man and Caitriona Balfe in Ford v Ferrari), mainly because we are acutely aware that far fewer films like this exist for women, and when they do happen, they’re probably going to be as much about her love life as her professional accomplishment (ahem, Erin Brockovich). Dark Waters makes sure to note that Sarah Bilott (Hathaway) is a lawyer herself, and backgrounded in the film is, not exactly a subplot but definitely a story point about how women are treated in the legal field. At the beginning of the film, Bilott has just become a partner in his firm, and we meet his fellow ladder-climbers, James (William Jackson Harper), and Karla (Louisa Krause). We find out that James eventually becomes a partner, too, but Karla, who hides her pregnancy as long as possible, stalls out once she has children. Dark Waters makes no statement or thematic point about this, but it makes sure to show that the support Bilott receives throughout his career is not deployed equitably in his firm.
As hard as it tries, though, Dark Waters still has an unexamined blindspot. In one scene, a senior partner (played by Tim Robbins) shuts down James, the only black partner at the firm, during a meeting. Dark Waters, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan and Mario Correa and directed by Todd Haynes, is trying to be more aware of acknowledging how the world of people like Robert Bilott works for people who do not look like Robert Bilott, but yet we still have this scene where a white man yells at and silences the only black man in the room. It hardly ruins the movie, it’s just interesting that Dark Waters is trying so hard to acknowledge the iniquities of the world yet still contains this scene. Something to ponder.
As for the legal case that forms the centerpiece of the film, it is absolutely INFURIATING. There is a time jump in Dark Waters similar to the time jump in Avengers: Endgame, but it provokes a much more visceral and enraging response. Dark Waters is effective as a legal thriller, building tension steadily as Bilott pursues DuPont across decades, even as his initial plaintiff succumbs to illness brought to his door by poisoned water. (Bill Camp does a superb job as cranky and furiously justified farmer Wilbur Tennant.)
Bilott faces every imaginable obstacle, from going up against a massively powerful conglomerate, to the resistance of his fellow partners, to a crumbling personal life, to the tragedy of watching plaintiffs fall ill and die. Dark Waters can be a tough watch at times, but Ruffalo keeps it grounded in Bilott’s persistence and the eventual triumph of the little guy is all the more cathartic for knowing how hard fought the victory is. (And is it even really a victory when so many suffer?) It’s a little strange this is a Todd Haynes film, as it does not feel or really even look like a Todd Haynes film, but I hardly begrudge him the paycheck. Mainly, Dark Waters is a showcase for Mark Ruffalo, and an important story about holding corporations accountable for the harm they cause.
Attached - Mark Ruffalo at Tokyo Comic-Con on Saturday.